(Metropolitan, 495 pages, $30)
It’s no mystery how America’s black urban slums came to be, says historian Beryl Satter. A half-century ago, she says, the typical African-American couple hoping to buy a home confronted a system that was seemingly engineered to destroy family and community. Unlike other Americans, blacks couldn’t borrow from a bank because the Federal Housing Administration would not provide mortgage insurance for homes in neighborhoods where even a handful of blacks lived. Speculators filled the vacuum in those areas, selling buildings at inflated prices to black buyers willing to sign onerous contracts. Exorbitant fees were often tacked on, and a single late payment was grounds for instant eviction. To hang on, families rented out parts of their homes and themselves became exploitative landlords.
For Satter, this is a personal story, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Her father, Mark Satter, was a white lawyer in Chicago who loudly did battle with discriminatory housing practices before his death, at 49, in 1965. But “the historian and the storyteller in Ms. Satter are never at war with each other” in Family Properties. Though the book contains patches of “awkward” writing, it “feels like something close to an instant classic.” Her “transfixing” narrative is also so laden with horror stories about individual families and indifferent public authorities “that you will want to walk outside every 15 pages or so and simply scream in outrage.” Satter’s study, said David J. Garrow in The Washington Post, may rank as “the most important book” ever to be published on “the black freedom struggle” in Northern cities.
The Times and the Post swallow Satter’s argument too easily, said Ira Stoll in Commentary.com. If greedy white property owners caused all of the problems of black urban America, “why was there so much crime and so little hope” even in Chicago’s government-run public housing projects? But Family Properties is far from “a simple story of white power and black victimization,” said Raymond Arsenault, also in the Times. Much of Satter’s account concerns the interracial movement that eventually rose up against housing discrimination. Throughout, she captures the ambiguities of real-life economics.